The Windrush Scandal Revisited

By Jacqueline McKenzie*

It has been nearly three years since reports started circulating of gross injustices meted out to men, women and their descendants who had travelled from the Caribbean and settled in the UK, clutching passports which defined them as citizens of the UK and colonies, only to be treated as illegal immigrants some decades on. 

Known as the Windrush scandal, many of the victims are direct descendants of those who arrived onboard the Empire Windrush which docked at Tilbury Docks on the 22 June 1948 and successive boats carrying people from British colonies, to help with Britain’s post war rebuilding project.  Due to racist anti-migrant rhetoric,  discriminatory immigration law and practices, the destruction of records and the failure to provide people with adequate documentation when they arrived, a number of these descendants who thought they were simply travelling from one part of the motherland to another,  found themselves deprived of services, detained in immigration removal centers and removed from the UK.  Worst, there are deaths directly attributed to the stress of trying to prove immigration statuses.  One such death was that of Paulette Wilson who died on the 23 July 2020 aged just 62. Paulette, who became an activist and face of the Windrush scandal, had spent 30 years working in the House of Commons but unable to prove her immigration status despite living in the UK for over 50 years, she ended up being detained in an immigration removal centre. Paulette died without obtaining full redress and justice. The Joint Committee for Human Rights concluded that “Policy choices and political decisions in the Home Office led to a hostile culture and callous system so alarm bells didn’t even ring in the department about locking up a grandmother who has lived here for decades, or when longstanding lawful residents lost their NHS treatment and were met with a wall of bureaucracy in response.”

Theresa May’s government had tried to ignore the Winter 2017 reports of the injustices until by dint of coincidence, the Caribbean Heads of Government were in the UK for the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in April 2018, just as more and more stories were coming to light.  This caused Jamaica’s prime minister Andrew Holness, to make an unlikely and impassioned speech; unlikely because his Jamaica Labour Party is aligned with the UK’s Conservative Party as members of an alliance of right wing political parties,  International Democratic Union, during which he called upon the British government to ensure that the Windrush generation got justice.  He demanded that, “the prime minister must also personally apologise to each individual who has been affected as a first step in rebuilding relations with our commonwealth allies and the Caribbean diaspora in this country.”  It was only at this point did the government take some action. Amber Rudd, then Home Secretary, was forced to resign after misleading parliament in a debate on the Windrush scandal over how the Home Office managed illegal migration and the Windrush Task Force was set up to provide redress to those affected.

Pandering to anti-migrant discourse

The backdrop to the scandal involves politicians of various persuasions and successive governments, pandering to right wing media and anti-migrant discourse. The exact events are  steeped in history and complex law but include the diminution of citizenship rights by the 1971 Immigration Act, which came into force on the 1 January 1973, when only Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK were given the right to remain indefinitely, thereby affecting the descendants of many and the British Nationality Act 1983 which, inter alia,  took away the automatic rights of citizenship to some children born in the UK.  Long-standing residents, including those in the UK before the January 1973, were protected from enforced removal by a specific exemption in the 1999 Immigration and Asylum Act but this clause was removed by legislation of 2014, surreptitiously.  But it was from around 2014, the pinnacle of the hostile environment, that those caught up in the Windrush scandal started to lose their right to work, receive benefits, rent properties, hold bank accounts or board flights for return journeys to the UK.

The term hostile environment was actually first coined by Liam Byrne who in May 2007, as Labour’s immigration minister, wrote in a consultation document that “we are trying to create a much more hostile environment in this country if you are here illegally.”  Decades before him, 11 Labour MPS wrote to prime minister Clement Atlee on the 22 June 1948, urging him to stop the docking of the Empire Windrush advising that it would sow disharmony and discord amongst the British people and  encourage an influx, words echoed by Enoch Powell, twenty years later. Atlee, though initially pondering on the request and thinking about alternative destinations for the ship, eventually wrote back to his discontent MPs advising, “It is traditional that British subjects, whether of the dominion or colonial origin … should be freely admissible to the United Kingdom.  That tradition is not, in my view, to be lightly discarded, particularly at this time when we are importing foreign labour in large numbers.  … If our policy were to result in a great influx of undesirables, we might, however unwillingly, have to consider modifying it.”  The ship was allowed to dock and so started the movement of people from colonies and former colonies with those early settlers described as the Windrush generation noted in their historical narrative for their contribution to the building of a number of organisations and institutions in the UK, most notably the NHS.    

Home secretary Theresa May

But the problems first annunciated by Labour actually became exacerbated when Theresa May as home secretary, ordered a set of administrative and legislative measures aimed at creating a hostile environment for migrants in the hope that people would leave, formalized in the Conservative Party 2010 election manifesto and announced as a policy by the Coalition government of 2012.  By virtue of Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016 almost everyone from employers to the NHS, were forced to assume the role of immigration officers and in 2013, the widely condemned operation Vaken saw “Go Home Vans” parading around neighborhoods inhabited by black and Asian communities. 

 The very policy meant to curb illegal immigration has mostly ensnared people with every right to be in the UK, including members of the Windrush generation. Joycelyn John who arrived in the UK in 1963 aged 4 from Grenada is one such victim.  She came to the Home Office’s attention when she tried to return to work in 2015 after taking time out to look after her late mother.  Despite supplying 75 pages of evidence to the Home Office, including evidence of her attending primary school in the UK in the 1960’s, she was served with removal directions to Grenada for Christmas 2016.  Under a threat of immigration detention, she left and suffered extreme hardship in a country she had not visited in over 5 decades. Despite getting a personal letter of apology from then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, she was left to fend for herself on her return to the UK despite having lost everything and to date has still not been adequately compensated. 

Both the National Audit Office and the Home Affairs Select Committee have found no evidence that the objectives of the policy have had any effect on what they term as illegal migration to the UK.  In September 2020, MPs on the public accounts committee described the Home Office, now run by Priti Patel, as basing its immigration policies on anecdotes and prejudice instead of relying on evidence.  The committee said that the Home Office had no idea whether the £400 million it spent annual on immigration enforcement activities achieved anything and that the department shows no inclination to learn from its numerous mistakes across a range of activities.   

But three years on and following on from the publication of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review last March, hardly any lessons have been learnt.  Wendy Williams, the independent reviewer, stopped short of defining the Home Office as institutional racist for technical reasons to do with the definition in the McPherson Report following the investigation into the police’s handling of the investigation into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence.  She concluded that the Windrush scandal did lasting damage to people in many ways and fond that.  “A combination of successive government policies, institutional amnesia and inadequate practice denied them their liberty.  It denied them their freedom of movement.  It denied them a normal life.  And it did this to an identifiable group of people who had lived in the UK for decades, many since childhood.”  She continued that though her work also felt short of finding a breach of the Human Rights Act or Equality Act 2010, she did find evidence that the department could have done much more in the case of the Windrush generation to have regard to the potential to foster discrimination and to result in them, as a racial group, facing disadvantages and detrimental treatment.  She concluded, “I have serious concerns that the factors that I identified demonstrate an institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards race and the history of the Windrush generation.  These aspects were among those included in the elements of the definition of institutional racism considered by the McPherson inquiry.”


Many of those affected by the Windrush scandal say that they can never be compensated for the loss, suffering and degradation they have suffered but it goes some way to covering actual losses. The much vaulted Windrush Compensation Scheme has made offers of just £1.6 million of an anticipated claim estimate of £200 million and lawyers and activists are concerned at the governance of the scheme.  There have been inordinate delays in the decision making, requests for copious amounts of evidence of documentation, sometimes decades old and there is no support for independent legal advice for the applicants. Further, those affected are mainly elderly and vulnerable and confronted with an 18-page form and 46 pages of guidance notes. Though the government has contracted with the CA Service to provide assistance, this does not sit well with a fiercely proud and dignified community who many say that’s where they went for help when they first encountered difficulties with the Home Office, to no avail. Tariffs which includes £1000.00 for voluntary removal, £500.00 for losing out on a university place and £1000.00 for being denied housing services are widely described as insulting and there is concern about the depriving of compensation to some groups such as those described as having serious convictions, despite the reality of discrimination evident in the criminal justice system, particularly in past years. 

The Windrush scandal does not just affect the Windrush generation though it does so disproportionately.  Their treatment is indicative of how this mostly voiceless group, who contributed so much to the UK but who have been battered by poor socio-economic attainment, are viewed.  Even today, they continue to be treated by contempt by a Home Office which is showing more and more that its operations are underpinned by anti-migrant and racist policies, not inadvertently but by design.  But as with the movement around Black Lives Matter and Barbados’s decision to become a republic and remove the queen as their head of state, little by little, people from the Caribbean are recognizing that their treatment as second class citizens, by design, is not going to be tolerated for much longer.

In my mind, there is no doubt that racism and discrimination underpin the cause of the injustices meted out to the Windrush generation.  You cannot have tenets of discrimination and racism and not be discriminatory and racist.  This is simply illogical.

*Human Rights Lawyer, McKenzie Beute and Pope and Director of the Centre for Migration Advice and Research

Photo: Windrush Scandal protest – from Parliament Square to the Home Office, London. 28th April 2018 (Steve Eason/CC)

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